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Are You My Umami?

by Merilyn Jackson
May 13, 2007
New York, NY
The search for your true umami never ends.
For my three-year-old grandson last Christmas, I bought Maurice Sendak's and Arthur Yorinks' book, Mommy? an extremely intricate pop-up book in which a little boy looking for his mother approaches horrific monsters and asks Mommy? My cautious daughter put it away until he grows a little older. Apparently, I had confused Sendak and Yorinks' book with a less macabre one by Carla Dijs, called Are You My Mommy?

Around Mother's Day, you may know where your mom is, but finding and identifying umami, the fifth taste, can be just as confusing and, often as scary as the Sendak book or as benign as the Dijs version.

Reading about umami and getting a definitive description is like getting five different diagnoses for a skin rash. No one seems able to define it as easily as they can sweet, sour, bitter or salty. Early in the 20th century, a Japanese scientist first identified umami when he found that glutamate had a flavor distinctive from the known four. Many food writers have since described it as a marriage between sweet taste and glutamates. I liken it to what is called mouth feel, that sensation you get when something wonderful fills your mouth and the insides of your cheeks are already opening wide for the next bite.

It's the taste that can drive you to eat wildly, furiously and with great gusto. I once secretly and sadly watched an anorexic friend, a dancer, in my kitchen shamelessly wolf down the cracklings from my ham. She disappeared before I set the by then cracklin'- free platter out for a party.

Asian, Mediterranean and Eastern European cuisines were on this eons ago, giving us fermented and cured foods like miso, soy and fish sauces, ham, prosciutto, sausages, cheeses and other dairy, like butter, kefir and buttermilk. Soup stocks often have the deepest, richest umami.

MSG is a glutamate product manufactured after the taste discovery and Asian cooks use it to achieve umami. In very small doses, it is not a bad thing for people who don't have an intolerance. And as anyone who has ever put a spare shake of Accent on a steak before grilling knows, it is a flavor coaxer. But there are ways to reach umami without it.

One is the blending, or building of flavors some might even think antithetical to each other. Another is the proper caramelizing of foods like bone-in roasted meats, roast chicken and turkey skin, mushrooms and vegetables like baby bok choy, grilled squashes, peppers and corn. The food's sugars blend with natural glutamates and inosinates to make this fifth taste, often described as savory. In the right hands, caramelizing can give those and many more foods terrific, mouthwatering umami. Vegetarians love grilled portabellas because they are so steeped with umami they taste like meat.

The urge to define this tantalizing taste is like the urge to scratch that rash and remains no matter what you learn about it or how many definitions you hear. I know how to find my umami at home. My carefully chosen cookware caramelizes my dishes to bring them to the height of umami. And when I go out to eat, I look for it in many places.

I recently found it at Piano Due (152 West 51st St., NYC, NY, 10019, 212-399-9400), in several entries on their tasting menu. Their butterflied Ecuadorian shrimp sat smartly on a sunchoke puree drizzled in a lemon and mustard sauce and the duck breast perched on an apple shallot puree over vanilla braised endives. Both sent my senses reeling. But the coconut sorbet with warm pineapple sauce brought me back to umami hominess again with two flavors that have had the longest and happiest of marriages.

I'm still looking for a properly aged, runny brie. Cheesemongers rarely sell it ripe. The shelf life is too short and you cannot ripen a cut brie at home. It needs to sit out for days in the wheel, turned over daily, rolled along its edge to see if it's runny inside and sniffed for the right floral bouquet. Even so, what France sends to the American market does not have much umami.

I yearn for deep and woodsy hot and sour soup made with pork bones, and not, for goodness sake, chicken broth. The fat police won out on that one. And hey, if you know where I can score some foie gras closer than Canada, I'll sear it for you and serve it with my Chambord sauce, fat and food police be damned.

If you don't recognize umami, you may be looking in all the wrong places. But if you think you found umami, let us know where. It's the mother of all tastes. Take the mom in your life out for a umami hunt and give her a Happy Mother's Day.

© Merilyn Jackson, 2007
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